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CD Reviews Mahjongg Norfolk Western Melissa Czarnik …

The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger

Getting funky used to be hard, but nowadays almost any cover band can claim at least one song in its set that allows it to get funky with ease. Mahjongg is part of the panoply of indie bands, from Talking Heads to Soul Coughing to !!!, that make funk challenging again.

On its third full-length album, “The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger,” the Chicago band runs its usual risk of being too clever: It fills these seven tracks with deliberately fuzzed-out vocals, brain-testing loops of electronic sounds and layers of oddities that seem intent on ramming the music past the checkpoint to chaos.

Still, Mahjongg finds clarity of purpose, turning “Grooverider Free” from a wandering amble through a computer chip to a light-cycle ride on the information highway, or letting the organic elements of “La Beat” dominate the song’s otherwise silicon-based landscape. Mahjonng frees its collective mind, and of course the body follows.

– Jon M.

Gilbertson, Special to the Journal Sentinel

Norfolk & Western
Dinero Severo
3 Syllables

Over the course of five releases, Adam Selzer’s Norfolk & Western has been coaxing lazy pianos and pedal steel guitars into joining the high art conversations that fill the warehouse apartments of the Bohemian, post-Velvet art rock crowd.

On “Dinero Severo,” those well-worn country inflections are balanced nicely by even more accents and expansions on the band’s native language:

Guitars fairly screech into war against exploding drums on “Turkish Wine.” John Lennon’s ghost is summoned in spirit and style on “Future Mother.” And California sunshine insists on a major role in “So That’s How It Is.”

But when the band hits the road in support of “Dinero Severo,” the fact that the bulk of the album was recorded live in the studio ultimately may prove to be its greatest triumph. The added sonic energy that grows from its casual vibe may well articulate a solid case for Norfolk & Western as one of America’s premier touring acts.

If they ever finally decide to come to Milwaukee, we’ll see if they can close that argument.

– Sam Seiler, Special to the Journal Sentinel

Melissa Czarnik
Raspberry Jesus
Hyperdrive Motivator Productions

With its guitar-heavy slow jams, “Raspberry Jesus” isn’t your typical hip-hop album, and Melissa Czarnik, with her heavily-introspective, spoken-word, styled rhymes, certainly isn’t your everyday emcee.

In this sophomore release, local artist Czarnik bounces between topics such as losing a loved one (“Been this Way”), the complications of romance (“Mercredi” and “Love Train”) and eternal soul-searching (“Hand Me the Mic”).

But that isn’t to say she doesn’t throw down lyrically, as evidenced by tracks like the aggressive “Stay High,” the piano-laden “Anattitude” and the up-tempo shout-out to other female emcees, “Artista.”

Though it might be a bit bloated with tracks about love and longing for its return, when you’re in that mood or want to hear true-to-life rhymes from a strong, independent woman, you’ll reach for this.

– Steven Potter, Special to the Journal Sentinel

Tim Warfield
A Sentimental Journey
Criss Cross

The tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield is pointing toward a jazz sound that reaches back 60 years in real time and a psychic millennium away in media time. You’ll hear musicians playing licks on “A Sentimental Journey” that were comfortably modern in the late 1950s.

But there’s a way to do that without seeming dogmatic or conceptually forced or just left behind; jazz is a cumulative art, a continuity.

Warfield, now in his mid-40s, comes from York, Pa., which gave him proximity to jazz in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington – cities whose clubs and audiences kept tradition healthy in jazz after bebop. He spent time playing with the Philadelphia organist Shirley Scott, and a record he made in her memory two years ago, “One for Shirley,” introduced his new band. That group continues in “A Sentimental Journey.” It’s all standards, not all ballads but almost; the quartet, with the trumpeter Terell Stafford, the organist Pat Bianchi and the drummer Byron Landham, takes long enough on each track to get in there completely.

Warfield presides with a pretty sound, close to singing and full of organized devices to get his solos rolling – nightclub tricks, ways to build up audience feedback.

From “Sentimental Journey,” where Landham shifts between triplet patterns and changes up his accents, Elvin Jones-style, the album heads into a cruise. There’s “My Man,” in which Warfield plays soprano saxophone with a tidy funeral-dirge introduction; “Speak Low,” with Stafford on muted trumpet and Warfield playing whispered ballad talk over a carpet of organ; “In a Sentimental Mood,” Duke Ellington’s greatest love song, with stuttering, build-and-recede organ dynamics; and “Golden Earrings,” at a crawl, the best and most extended spot for Warfield and Bianchi both, with no trumpet.

Warfield Stafford have been playing together for more than 20 years, and their combined sound as they harmonize on themes, as well as the way they build solos off of each others’ scattered ideas, is where the soul of the record lies. The music feels plush at heat-wave tempos; it takes its time and assumes you’re not going anywhere.

– Ben Ratliff, New York Times

Mary Gauthier
The Foundling
Razor & Tie

As a singer-songwriter who has always tended toward the downbeat, Mary Gauthier could not have picked a more suitable topic for her latest album. “The Foundling” is her overtly autobiographical account of being an orphan and failing to connect with her birth mother.

Working with the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins as producer – he surrounds her Louisiana drawl with understated but richly evocative arrangements – Gauthier presents a gripping narrative that amounts to the best work of a fine career. “March 11, 1962,” in which she finally reaches her mother by phone, only to be rejected, is a killer.

But the story doesn’t end there. A clue to how Gauthier manages to keep this tale from being irredeemably dark and depressing can be found in “Sideshow”; she unapologetically confesses to a penchant for sad songs, but also pokes a little fun at herself: “Another truly troubled troubadour/ Writing songs to even up the score.” With “The Foundling,” Gauthier does much more than that.

– Nick Cristiano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Fred Hersch

It’s impossible to hear this CD without noting the specialness of the moment. Pianist Fred Hersch developed AIDS-related dementia in early 2008, lying in a coma for two months and losing virtually all motor function in his hands.

This trio CD with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson documents his amazing recovery.

Hersch’s legendary sense for beauty remains a central focus. But he seems more limited now – as if he’s pushing the same desire through a smaller aperture. The intensity is stronger.

The ideas fly at you on this set of six Hersch originals and four standards, and they keep coming in stylish, rococo waves.

Hersch, who has been open about his homosexuality and his HIV status for decades, remains honest here, plumbing the possibilities of Harry Warren’s “You’re My Everything” and distilling a moment in his “Snow is Falling.” The title track, like much of this recording, is full of dark colors, a restless spirit, and an inspiring climax.

– Karl Stark, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Melissa Czarnik will perform at a release party at 10 p.m.

July 31 at Stonefly Brewery, 735 Center St.

A $10 cover includes a copy of the new CD.

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CD Reviews Mahjongg Norfolk Western Melissa Czarnik …

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